Food stamp ban riles lawmakers

Feb 1, 2012

A proposal limiting when, for what and where the state’s food and cash assistance benefits, also known as welfare, can be used, has passed a House committee. Lynn Hatter reports the move comes after a report on the misuse of the electronic benefits card, or EBT.

The program provides food and financial assistance to low-income people. It used to be that the food benefit came in a paper format—known as food stamps. But years ago the program transitioned to a credit-card like delivery system.  That card can also carry the financial benefit, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It’s normally used to pay things like housing, utilities, clothing or other incidentals not covered under the food benefit. But according to Republican Representative Scott Plakon of Longwood, sometimes, that cash benefit is used in places it shouldn’t be. 

“These EBT cards were being used at a lot of different places that taxpayers weren’t aware—strip clubs, gambling locations, down in Miami at a $3,300 at a liquor store…”

Plakon says his inspiration for the bill came from a news report in Fort Myers. But not everyone agrees the problems named are widespread. Here’s Representative Lori Burmin a Delray Beach Democrat, questioning the intent of the bill.

“Would you be surprised to know that as a result of the NBC2 report, that it was only .03 percent of total transactions?”

Plakon says he wants to ban the cards use in places like liquor stores and internet cafes. But the language of the bill is so broad, that some lawmakers say the ban could affect regular grocery and convenience stores like a Walgreen’s or CVS. And Fela Cuerva with the food aid group Florida Impact, say in some areas of the state—especially urban places, the local convenience store also doubles as the main grocery store.

 “Particularly in low-income neighborhoods, and folks with limited transportation—these folks have no access to larger grocery stores and so basically they purchase their goods in local retail stores and convenience stores. And most of those don’t carry fresh fruits and nutritious items.”

In addition to where the card can be used, Representative Plakon’s bill also outlines what foods can and can’t be purchased. The measure blocks the food assistance money from being used for sodas, cupcakes, even Jell-O and Chocolate milk. For Republican Representative Dana Young of Tampa, that just goes too far.

“I don’t want people to tell me what to eat. And, I just don’t think it’s right for us as legislators or the government to tell anyone what they should eat. Even if they happen to be poor.”

And Democrats like Representative Gwendolyn Clark-Reede are certainly not impressed with the bill.

 “I find this bill really, discriminatory and its aimed at low-income families who are on food stamps.”

Plakon acknowledged the bill does have its flaws but disagrees that the proposal is an over-reach of government.

 “I don’t want to lose the whole bill over parts that are more controversial than the rest. It started with internet café’s, but  I have noticed that if you look at stores, EBT’s,companies are advertising it, its big business.”

 The measure narrowly cleared the House Committee with a vote of 8-to-6. It will likely be amended to remove some of the food ban language at its next two committee stops. A similar effort by Senator Rhonda Storms is moving in that chamber. It is heading to it’s last committee stop in the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Appropriations.